Last week I wrote about the way in which male partners in law firms are repeatedly told they're the bees-knees and how this contributes to the "have her lotioned up and brought to my tent" attitude to young women.
Now I am 50 I wonder whether I have colluded in letting those men think they are entitled to fawning attention from young women. Because when I was younger, I certainly used to give it to them, flutter flutter, cringe.
I can see now I was really a bit of an enabler. By that I mean I adulated older men and thus let them think they could carry on behaving in a way which now seems not charmingly retro, but icky. When I went to Showgirls as the only woman in a group of older male colleagues I simply felt chuffed they invited me. (I do remember feeling a little overdressed, and the next morning thinking: Shit, I didn't get inspired to get up on the pole too, did I? Did I?)
Oh but before I go any further, may I object to the way the profession keeps framing this by saying it failed to "protect" the young women who were summer clerks? If I were them I would be spitting that I don't want to be "protected" thanks: I just want to be able to do my work. The "protect" thing makes them sound like swoony hanky-clutching scullery maids. Which they are not.
Actually, neither was I. One boss complained I should not stand with my arms folded at a meeting because it seemed aggressive. Would any man dare do that today? I just unfolded them. I thought I was tough but I wasn't.
But I have also had powerful male bosses who have been mentors to me. There was terrifying Herky, who looked like an old rocker but had a Mensa-level brain and to this day I have never met a man who drank his tea so strong or swore so much. And ferocious Ed, with Vulcan chess mastery when it came to getting a scoop, but who then would get on the phone and whisper to his daughter: "Pookiesnookins!"
One boss of mine (I was never romantically involved with any of these men) really changed my life. When I made a big mistake and cost the paper I worked for many thousands of dollars, I thought I was going to get fired. But instead he took me and some other staff out to Prego and in a matter of fact way just told me that you can't get every judgment call right.
Having grown up with an uncompromising father who was inclined to write me off because I once broke a tail light when I backed the car into a tree, to have this boss accept me despite my colossal stuff-up was life-changing. (This boss also took me to a royal function at the Northern Club and berated me for not taking the canape which was closest to me. To this day, when I get offered a platter by a waitress I freeze with indecision.)
Would those men have been so solicitous of me if I hadn't been so moony-eyed and worshipped the ground they walked on? I don't know. But I do know I modelled behaviour to younger women that scurrying around after older, powerful men was career enhancing. I wish I hadn't done that, and would not want to model that behaviour for my daughter.
There was one respected boss (Name Redacted) who under stress used to regress and throw legendary tanties. After he mercilessly berated a younger, and more sensitive, female colleague I tried to share my Name Redacted management techniques with her. "Just agree with everything he says, smile nicely, and then go and do what you were going to do anyway." I now wish I had stood up for her and told him to speak to her with respect. I thought I was helping, but I let her down and I'm sorry.
Since I'm in a confessional mood, I should say it's not just men who do inappropriate things. Until I went into therapy I simply never knew about boundaries. I told some of the older men I worked with way too much about my (at that time) turbulent love life. I once gave a boss my journal to read. I guess I wanted to have a more meaningful connection, but I don't mean about sex. I just respected and admired him and didn't know how to show that.
With that in mind, I'd like to suggest, that it is quite possible some of those corporate warriors who have shady boundaries around young women are not motivated by predatory desire for sex or even power. They are actually looking (albeit in a maladaptive way) for a sense of human connection – wanting to be seen and accepted outside their constricted, buttoned-down professional persona. They are trying to say: I'm just a person, same as you, not just the stuffed shirt you see in meetings. They were once a young boy who liked a giggle and comics and garage bands, and that childlike part is still there, somewhere, beneath the pompous exterior.
It's not the way to do it though.